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Radioactivity in the environment; a case study of the Puerco and Little Colorado River basins, Arizona and New Mexico

Water-Resources Investigations Report 94-4192

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Abstract

This report, written for the nontechnical reader, summarizes the results of a study from 1988-91 of the occurrence and transport of selected radionuclides and other chemical constituents in the Puerco and Little Colorado River basins, Arizona and New Mexico. More than two decades of uranium mining and the 1979 failure of an earthen dam containing mine tailings released high levels of radionuclides and other chemical constituents to the Puerco River, a tributary of the Little Colorado River. Releases caused public concern that ground water and streamflow downstream from mining were contaminated. Study findings show which radioactive elements are present, how these elements are distributed between water and sediment in the environment, how concentrations of radioactive elements vary naturally within basins, and how levels of radioactivity have changed since the end of mining. Although levels of radioactive elements and other trace elements measured in streamflow commonly exceed drinking-water standards, no evidence was found to indicate that the high concentrations were still related to uraniurn mining. Sediment radioactivity was higher at sample sites on streams that drain the eastern part of the Little Colorado River basin than that of samples from the western part. Radioactivity of suspended sediment measured in this study, therefore, represents natural conditions for the streams sampled rather than an effect of mining. Because ground water beneath the Puerco River channel is shallow, the aquifer is vulnerable to contamination. A narrow zone of ground water beneath the Puerco River containing elevated uranium concentrations was identified during the study. The highest concentrations were nearest the mines and in samples collected in the first few feet beneath the streambed. Natuxal radiation levels in a few areas of the underlying sedimentary aquifer not connected to the Puerco River also exceeded water quality standards. Water testing would enable those residents not using public water supplies to determine if their water is safe to use.

Additional Publication Details

Publication type:
Report
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Title:
Radioactivity in the environment; a case study of the Puerco and Little Colorado River basins, Arizona and New Mexico
Series title:
Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number:
94-4192
Edition:
-
Year Published:
1994
Language:
ENGLISH
Publisher:
U.S. Dept. of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey ; U.S. Geological Survey, Earth Science Information Center, Open-File Reports Section [distributor],
Description:
iii, 23 p. :col. ill., col. maps ;28 cm.